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Drinking, smoking and screwing. That's what hotel restaurants are really for -- for doing the first two as prelude to the third.
909 17th St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Trio di crostini: $9
Gamberi al arrabbiata: $13
Chocolate ravioli: $6
Waiting, too. Hotel restaurants are good for waiting. And for drinking and smoking while you wait -- for a friend, a business associate, your mule or that bartender down the street to get off work. They're good for staring thoughtfully into your martini, reading fortunes in gin and olive brine, twisting your Zippo between your fingers. Check the score of the game on TV even if you don't care, flag the barman for another drink you really don't need, watch the street lamps go on in a city that isn't your own -- stranger in a strange land, pausing, however briefly or long, in this island of light and familiarity. Hotel restaurants are made for strangers, transitory characters just passing through. To be a local waiting in a hotel restaurant is a uniquely depressing experience. If you're there, you're there for a reason -- hopefully to drink, to smoke and to screw, or at least two out of the three.
I'm at Panzano in the Hotel Monaco, waiting for my wife, drinking something-and-somethings at the bar like liquor's going out of style and annoying the drunken businessman beside me, who waves his fingers at my smoke whenever it intrudes into his personal space. He's half lying on the bar, salt-and-pepper hair almost grazing its slickly polished top, asking the tender for another round and to split the check with the girl beside him. That's a sign of an evening gone wrong, unless they'd already decided to go Dutch. And the look on her face, the way she purses her lips as if to spit every time he looks at her? Definitely an evening gone wrong.
I light another and watch the revolving door at the end of the long, stone counter where Panzano's bakers work or don't, depending on the hour. There are stools for sitting (and flour-dusted cookbooks and clipboards, cooking racks and a big, upright Hobart mixer that I can't imagine is ever used because those things are loud, so why would you have one essentially in your lobby?), but no service. This seems like a strange waste of real estate when the restaurant is full and the bar close to it. The restaurant itself is just past the door, and I'm watching for Laura to come sweeping in. She won't, because I'm here for work (more or less), and she's off on the other side of town doing whatever it is she does when I'm more-or-less working, but I can't help thinking that she might.
Our relationship started in hotels, after all. And in hotel bars. It was a game. I'd put on a half-fake Irish accent and pretend to be Nigel Pennington of the BBC. She'd be a Russian spy, straight out of John Le Carré. And even if we were meeting in Ithaca or Rochester or somewhere even less cosmopolitan, it was fun. In Ithaca, in Rochester, in Philadelphia and Georgetown and Boulder -- in all the places we met long before we managed to agree on a zip code to call our own, we knew what hotel restaurants were for, and it was never eating.
Except maybe breakfast, and we'd had breakfast at Panzano a week before. The cream for my coffee was curdled, and Laura got a paper cut from the butcher's paper used to cover the tablecloth, but the orange juice was fresh-squeezed and the eggs Benedict were just fine -- poached in perfect rounds that can only be achieved with the application of springforms or PVC tube, topped with a champagne hollandaise and mounted over English muffins smeared with a very good pesto. Laura had an omelette with ham and fresh tomatoes and cheddar and drank black tea. We pretended we were in New York, sitting pressed up against the windows and watching the sunlight crawl through the narrow ravine of 17th Street and across the face of downtown skyscrapers. All the scene needed was about a thousand more cabs and it would've been complete. We were late, even for brunch, but we weren't the only table lingering, and we never felt hurried. Our server, with his shiny green vest and perfectly manicured nails, was nothing but a gentleman.
Dinner a couple days later was different -- good and bad and uncomfortable throughout. Panzano was busy, which was okay with me. The only thing more depressing than dinner in a hotel restaurant is dinner in an empty hotel restaurant. The crowd was mostly businessmen, suits, squares and perpetually pissed-off German tourists confused by everything from the seating policy to the arrangement of the menu. Our waitress treated us like trash with a history -- like we were about to make off with the silverware or order red wine with fish.
The menu was rote Italian, elevated with a little style -- but that was mostly in the form of truffle oil drizzled over every other plate. Our waitress rattled off the night's specials while staring at some distant point over our heads like she was competing in a spelling bee, apologized in patronizing tones for two or three dishes that were sold out even though she clearly could not possibly have cared less. We ordered wine, skipping the overpriced bottles in favor of overpriced glasses, then appetizers, at which point she stopped us.
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